Welcome once again to another Night at the Kino; however, this evening seems to be a bit more macabre than normal. As part of Terror Tuesday, I’m dedicating this month to horror, and what better way to introduce people to the genre than by reviewing movies that are landmark films. Each of these are original in their own right and have set the foundation for the majority of the films (both terrifying and cringeworthy) that we watch today. They may not all be considered “classics, ” but they have a permanent foundation in horror. Of course this goes to say that these are my opinions; however, I’ve been studying the genre and have made valid points to serve as evidence for my choices. There is a movie up here for every person too, despite what you may think. Watching the occasional scary movie can sometimes be a cathartic release of any potential fears that exist within your mind, so if you have nothing to do after reading this, why not stream one of these tales of terror. I try to keep the spoilers to a minimum as well but read at your own risk.
First in Fright
This is a film you’ve probably never heard of, and you may, honestly, never watch but I’m starting my list with this entry because it is the first “horror” film (even before Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1960). The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari as it is known in Germany, its country of origin, was released in 1920 during the silent film era, and yes this is a silent film. The story follows Francis, his friend Alan (who happens to be in love with the same woman as Francis), the woman, a strange carnival, and an even more bizarre booth owner. Dr. Caligari comes to the festival and wows the crowd with a somnambulist (a sleepwalker), Cesare, who also has the ability to predict the future. What happens after this is a series of strange murders, a kidnapping, and a finale that will leave you with the taste of confusion in your mouth. “Gothic horror” is evident in the story, but is also present in the entire production. By utilizing various color filters and handpainted sets, the director Robert Weine thrills us with a visual display of psychedelic madness. My favorite aspect of this movie was the use of the musical score and how it overlaps whenever characters are “speaking,” it’s a genius way to combine visual and auditory sensations without having the actual dialogue. Remember, this is a silent film made in the 1920’s, during the German Expressionism movement; what they did for this film may be considered rudimentary to today’s standards; however, this movie opened the door for the horror genre in cinema.
Favorite Line: “How long will I live…?” “Til the break of dawn”
Dying of Laughter
In 1984 Big Brother rules and Oceania is at war with Eastasia, but in our reality, away from the Orwellian nightmare, we were graced with another form of terror. Wes Craven came to the director’s chair once again after successfully completing both The Hills Have Eyes and The Last House on the Left, but this time he approached the genre with a new idea, comedy. This unlikely combination of terror and laughs introduced us to the maniacal dream-murder Freddy Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street. In a small town, on Elm Street, a group of teenagers finds their dreams haunted by a ghoulish man with a claw on his hand. Interesting fact: Craven got the idea after reading a report about a group of Hmong men mysteriously dying in from nightmares after refusing to fall asleep. What makes this movie so iconic is the villain. I’d argue that this film is carried more by Kruger than the protagonist Nancy, mainly because he was an entirely different villain than the previous movie monsters and masked killers. Krueger is a witty but ruthless, comedic but sadistic, a hilarious but horrifying character who throws in dark humor just before he mercilessly kills his victims. Craven also steps it up with the gore and the death scenes, for each one is uniquely crafted to the situation and the dreamer. Plus, this movie is the debut of everybody’s favorite pirate, Johnny Depp.
Favorite Line: “Morality sucks”
“Based on A True Story…lol”
You either love it or hate it, but you’ve undoubtedly heard of The Blair Witch Project (TBWP). Released in 1999 this film was a pioneer in the genre for one simple reason: found footage. This is a style of cinematography where the camera is angled from the point of view of the characters as if they were holding the device directly. What this does is add a new, intimate approach to terror. In TBWP, we follow a group of documentary students on a quest to uncover the secret of the Blair Witch, a mythical entity that is said to have lived in the woods. However, everything becomes increasingly tense as more strange happenings occur on their trip. If you’re looking for a film that gives you visual scares, then look elsewhere; the magic of TBWP is in the tense atmosphere that it builds. It’s heart-aching, dizzying, and traumatic while being a near-perfect imitation of a real camping experience gone horribly wrong. Although we may be too young to remember, this film also had an interesting twist when it came to promotion; it listed the three actors as missing on their website and utilized this gimmick to generate buzz for the initial release.
Favorite Line: “I’m afraid to close my eyes, I’m afraid to open my eyes.”
Guess Who’s Going To Be Dinner
Thomas Harris is a bestselling writer, and he is the creator of one of the most iconic cinema antagonists, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Harris’ novel, Silence of The Lambs, was adapted to the big screen in the year 1991, and it brought a dramatic shift to the horror genre by creating the “psychological thriller” subsection. Up until this point, horror movies were weekend flicks for teenagers and thrillseekers to watch, but this film attracted new audience members for its compelling and deranged story. FBI agent Clarice Starling, played by a young Jodie Foster, is recruited by the bureau to interview (read: interrogate) Dr. Lecter, the ever-impressive Anthony Hopkins, in hopes of learning clues to help them catch a serial killer by the name of Buffalo Bill. Some would argue that this isn’t a horror film, but it contains many of the elements: a crazed killer who skins his victims, a second crazed killer with a craving for human flesh, a labyrinth (in both the plot and home), a kidnapping, torture, and character suffering. It doesn’t get more horrific than that. This is also groundbreaking for it was the first “not-horror-but-really-is-horror” film to win five Oscars, including Best Picture, further validating horror as a true paragon of cinematic art.
Favorite Line: “Put the lotion in the basket!”
Late Night Cravings
Our world today is completely oversaturated with zombies. The shambling corpses are in everything from one of the greatest comic book-to-TV adaptations to 4.99 cell phone games your seven-year-old cousin downloads over Easter weekend with the family. But, none of that would be the case if George A. Romero wouldn’t have come to the screen in 1968 (his feature debut) with the OG of zombie films, Night of The Living Dead. Plotwise this is insanely simple, a group of ragtag people has to survive in a cabin against a countless onslaught of “flesh-eating ghouls.” Now, the zombie was already a mythological entity that Hollywood had already tackled back in the 1920’s with White Zombie, but this film was the first time we saw the brainless, ravenous creatures that populate our culture. Romero’s skill lies in his ability to create both tensions between the survivors and the ghouls, but also within the group; also he cast a black man as the lead character, which was unheard of at the time (but that ending tho smh). The film is shot in black and white, but it was later remade in color. We owe a great deal of our culture to this film, and the best part is, the word “Zombie” is never used in this movie.
Favorite Line: “They’re coming to get you, Barbara”
Mask On: The Concealed Killer
We in America have John Carpenter to thank for many of our scares. This director/writer invented some of the best themes for horror, and he did most of it on an indie budget, starting with Halloween in 1987. The plot is quite simple (it becomes increasingly more fleshed out over the series…sort of), an emotionless murderer escapes from his detention center and returns to his small town to wreak havoc on a babysitter and her friends; did I mention that it was on Halloween night? What Carpenter does with this film is give us a realistic predator/prey scenario, which is reflected in the visuals. The cinematography is unique because Carpenter employs extended tracking shots that almost give one the feeling of “stalking,” and he doesn’t rely on cheap gimmicks (i.e. jump scares) to frighten us; his “Shape” (aka Myers), as it was called in the script, does that for him. This film not only opened the door for the “masked killer” genre (aside from The Town that Dreaded Sundown), but it also birthed the career of Jamie Lee Curtis who plays the babysitter. Her character also establishes the theme of the “resourceful, clean-teen” survivor, although there is a scene of her hotboxing with her friends. If you’re looking for something that makes you feel uncomfortable after watching then this is the film for you. Also, fun fact about Michael Myers mask: the production team had excluded a mask from their budget, so left with only a few dollars they purchased a Captain Kirk mask (in the likeness of William Shatner) and malformed it to create the terrifying face we know and fear today.
Favorite Line: “He hasn’t spoken a word in fifteen years.”
Love Can Be Scary Too
This list of original sins wouldn’t be complete if there weren’t a horror film that included genetics, a mad scientist, and…romance? Enter, The Fly, directed by David Cronenberg. The version I’m reviewing is 1986 one, featuring Jeff Goldblum as our surprisingly charming Dr. Brundle. What separates this film from other horror films (and crappy remakes in general) is its ability to craft a love story that eventually spins into a horrific tragedy. Dr. Brundle is a reclusive scientist who has successfully created a teleportation device, but when his experiment goes wrong, he slowly starts transforming into something more insectoid and dangerous. But the beauty of this story lies in the relationship between him and Veronica, the beautiful journalist (played by the equally beautiful Geena Davis) who is writing an article about his project. We’re able to witness the transformation of our beloved protagonist into this bestial monstrosity, but we also watch the tragedy unfold as Veronica tries to save her lover. Patience is key in this film as the pacing is relatively slow, but there are elements of humor and drama that make the time pass until it’s time for The Fly to appear. This film was much more successful than its predecessor for two main reasons: the establishment of the story before the horror, and the special effects (it won Best Makeup at the following Oscars). Also, I stand by this claim that this film has one of the best climaxes I’ve ever seen.
Favorite Line*: “I’d like to be the first insect politician.”
*Although not my personal favorite, the line “Be afraid. Be very afraid,” was improvised by Geena Davis in this movie.
Man and Madness
Madness is the greatest sickness of the mind, and this list wouldn’t be complete if there weren’t a film that delved into this metaphysical plague. Take one scary novel from a NY Times Best-Selling horror author and the visionary mind behind Full Metal Jacket and 2001: A Space Odyssey and you have created the terrifying classic known as The Shining. Written by Stephen King, The Shining is about a writer, Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson), serving as the caretaker of a lavish hotel in the mountains of Colorado. He brings his family along and together they experience evil, in both the supernatural and the real. It’s a dizzying tale that’s sure to make any viewer squirm as they watch Jack descend into madness. Director Kubrick may have steered away from the direct source material, but in it’s place he created a visual masterpiece, often revered as one of the most artistic horror films. In every shot, there is a hint of fantasy, but it’s overshadowed by the realness of the situation, making it akin to a dream (or nightmare) rather than just a film. The soundtrack is another redeeming quality; there is more silence than sound, which draws our senses in and whenever it does grace our ears, the noises are more chaotic than typical songs. What Kubrick does with this horror film is show you that the terrifying things aren’t what you show, but what you don’t. This gives the viewer an opportunity to formulate his/her own fear, and there’s nothing more frightening than what is within the mind.
Favorite Line: “Here’s Johnny!”
How to Properly Handle a Possession
Considered one of the most terrifying films of the 20th century, The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin, did something that other horror movies in the past hadn’t considered, which was to make a film that explored the dark side of religion, specifically (as the title says) exorcism. Exorcisms were, and still are, religious practices to “excise” a demon from a human host; many religions have their variation of exorcisms, but this film tackles the Catholic Church. When a teenage girl, Regan, suddenly starts to exhibit some increasingly bizarre behavior, her mother Chris, played by Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn, goes to whatever lengths to save her daughter including recruiting a priest, who happens to be struggling with his own faith. The buildup of the tension and terror in this film is phenomenal; we slowly watch this normal girl become possessed by a foul-mouthed (and I mean foul) demon. It also has a very realistic approach to the story, because chances are you’re not going to take your daughter to Father Ignacio the minute she has an episode. Aside from the story, the other notable aspects of this film were the cinematography and soundtrack. The song “Tubular Bells” may be one of the most chilling melodies that have accompanied a horror movie. The visuals have a way of entrancing the viewer with recognizable and comforting symbols of religion (ex. Statues of the Virgin & Crucifixes) and then at the same time transporting them to a dark realm where children can crab walk up stairways and twist their heads. This film is an essential for any supernatural horror fan.
Favorite Line: “What an excellent day for an exorcism”
Fear in the Final Frontier
Let me go ahead and get my fanboy out the way and say that Alien is one of the best horror films ever made and my personal favorite. With only one other film under his belt, Sir. Ridley Scott used his creative genius and improvisation techniques to give us the deep space terror, Alien, in 1979. In the late future, where space travel and androids are common, a mining vessel receives a distress signal from a nearby planet. When the crew goes to explore, they uncover a mysterious “alien” lifeform that finds its way back onto their ship…and proceeded to hunt the remaining crew. The film contains classic elements of gothic horror but also incorporates science fiction as well, which sets the stage for this survival horror. Each character is fleshed out enough to have us care about them, the xenomorph was unlike any movie monster we’d previously seen, and the progression of the story is well-paced. There are also thematic elements in the story such as the life cycle of the creature, birth and death, artificial intelligence, and even some feminism. Ellen Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, is worth mentioning too for her character is a break from the typical “helpless” female lead, in fact, Ripley is probably one of the most badass heroines in cinema history. The set design is another important quality; the Nostromo (the ship) is unlike any futuristic vessels. Most of us imagine space travel to be highly advanced, but this ship is a labyrinth filled with dead ends, claustrophobic ventilation shafts, aggressive steam, and other industrial elements. Even the antagonist, the xenomorph, goes through a change like the rest of the characters; tell me you weren’t terrified when it made its first kill as an adult. It’s design, along with the alien homeworld and Space Jockey, were creations of H.R. Giger (R.I.P.), a Swedish artist, whom Scott and the production team hired to be the art director. The “chestburster” scene is iconic and was unexpected by the crew (Veronica Cartwright’s reaction as Lambert is very real). What Alien did for horror was usher in the opportunity for genre-mixing, it blended so many aspects of cinema and art that it’s almost impossible to classify it as simply one. There are high tech computers and cryogenic chambers to appease the sci-fi fan, war-drama worthy camaraderie, and even elements of humor in the dialogue; but, what this film does most is generate fear, and it is this emotion that helps push it closer to the horror genre than the others. Regardless of where it’s classified, just know that this is a cinematic masterpiece and my number one film (in case you forgot).
Favorite Line: “I admire its purity. A survivor…unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.
Eulogy of the Essence
So there you have it, ten tales of terror on a Tuesday (say that five times fast). Now, I realize that there are plenty of other films that I did not cover, but these selected entries, to me, are the most groundbreaking when it comes to horror, either due to their effect on the genre or originality. Each of them has their own strengths and weaknesses, but fundamentally, they are complete, and for that reason, they sit as the pillars of my foundation of fright. When it finally comes time for me to tackle the dark side of cinema, I will be drawing inspiration from these productions. I hope you’ve enjoyed my review and take the time out of your week to catch one of these movies because a good scare can do wonders for the soul.